Teach our boy children well

As I watched my Facebook and Twitter timeline fill up with thousands of #MeToo hashtags from women sharing their experiences of sexual harassment, assault and misconduct I froze, and then I began to grieve — not only for the victims but for the silence of men, including me.

I had one question. Why is it that most of the #MeToo articles and opinion pieces are written by women? I wanted to read more articles by men who are the fathers of daughters. I need them to be the inspiration and teachers of their sons and other boys so that theygrow up learning to respect women. I took it upon myself to write this article.

How many times have we stood silently in the company of catcalling men, too cowardly to speak up in a woman’s defence? How many times have we pressured a woman to give more of herself than she felt comfortable giving? And how we justified ourselves after we had.

How many times have we consumed pornography without a second thought of the deep humanity and the beautiful stories behind the body? How many times have we used religion and culture to justify our misogyny? Should I go on?

Gentlemen, although we may not believe we have committed direct acts of violence against women (but, given the statistics, it is quite likely we did), we have each participated in a culture of misogyny and sexism that continues to victimise, traumatise, steal safety, generate fear, deny humanity and cultivate disrespect.

We are complicit in these #MeToo stories, whether we have intentionally acted, contributed unknowingly, nurtured with our silence or multiplied with our laughter.

The fact is bad men walk among us and decent men who don’t understand women’s experiences walk among us. This is not just a story for women to tell. We men can be a powerful voice speaking to other men. They may hear us in a way that they haven’t heard before.

Before you get all macho on me just remember, it takes courage to make sure you aren’t part of this problem. It takes guts to have the humility to rethink how we’ve responded to “guys being guys” in the workplace, whether we’ve let things slide and attributed our decision to some kind of mystical bro-code.

If you’re a man who feels no compunction to denounce sexism and sexual harassment against women publicly, that’s your prerogative. But there are men who are feeling conflicted, as I do. I know this article won’t topple patriarchy, and it’s no substitute for calling out a buddy who makes crude comments about women, or reporting a co-worker’s inappropriate behaviour. But it’s a step, and it’s far from meaningless.

Now I know almost every woman I talk to has been violated without her consent. The man who stared at her last night at the taxi rank and followed her home. The boss who complimented her appearance and then put his hand up her skirt. The man who touched her in the nightclub and wouldn’t stop when she objected. She will experience your actions in that context. Think about how that feels.

My precious nephew is 11 years old. I don’t know whether he will date women. If he does, I will expect his standard of respect to be high and his motivation for that respect to be genuine. I will expect him to reflect on his attitude and behaviour. I invite all my fellow men to hold him, themselves — and most certainly me — to that standard.

Teach your sons and nephews about the context of their actions. The future of our daughters depends on it. We don’t teach our boys about consent. When we do, we teach them a very basic message: no means no.

That’s only the beginning. We need to trust that they can handle the whole story.

He needs to understand that, when he puts his hand up a girl’s top (just hoping, just to see), she has probably already been a victim of sexual assault. Even if she wasn’t, she may not be ready to be touched. She may not know how to say no, or that she is allowed to say no.

Your son needs to ask her if it’s okay. He needs to tell her that if it’s not okay, she must say so. He may not get far that night but it will be worth it if he doesn’t become that girl’s #MeToo story.

I pledge to take a more active role in smashing rape culture in my community without fear of being told “uyaphapha lo [this person is forward]”. I will never blame a victim, and I will never stand and watch a man make unwanted advances on a woman. I will amplify women’s voices at work. If a woman’s contributions are being dismissed, interrupted or claimed by others, I will speak up. We should be the ones stepping out from the shadows, laying our souls bare.

It’s time we owned this sickness. It’s time we stopped it.

Mkululi Nqabeni is a freelance writer

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